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As the matching funds portion of Arizona’s Clean Elections law dangles by a legal thread, the state agency that hands taxpayer funds to political candidates is preparing to spend more than $2 million to convince voters and legislators it is doing a good job.
The Citizens Clean Elections Commission recently approved a budget that allocates $2 million for public relations and advertising, and another $78,000 for an outside lobbyist. That is in addition to the $2.9 million the agency will spend to print and distribute voter education pamphlets and to host candidate debates.
Spending so much money on a public relations campaign to tout the state agency is a waste, said Lori Daniels, the lone member of the five-person commission to vote against the spending plan. Daniels said the expenditure is particularly excessive as the state struggles to close a shortfall of around $1.5 billion in the current fiscal year.
“I think we should have a bare-bones budget this year because that’s exactly what the state is doing,” said Daniels. Commissioners “are spending more on the PR and advertising than is required by law. Right now, I feel like the state is in such a crunch that we just need to tighten our belts as much as we possibly can. And they feel like they’ve already done that.”
It is unusual for a state agency to have a budget purely for public relations and advertising. Most state agencies have one or more spokespersons, who are supposed to explain state business. Some agencies spend money on ad campaigns directly related to the agency’s mission, such as commercials urging motorists to buckle their seat belts or to refrain from driving while intoxicated.
But the purpose of the clean elections ads is to tout the benefits of the agency itself and the law that created it. The ad slogan is “Clean Elections: Everybody Wins.”
“The voters enacted clean elections,” one video posted on the agency’s website says in bold print over a splashy background. “Reducing special interest influence. Increasing citizen participation.”
Daniels said those videos are likely fodder for television ads.
Michael Becker, voter education manager for the clean elections commission, said those videos are not necessarily the ads that might run on television. A staff report that went to the commission says the public relations campaign will use television commercials telling voters that the agency and law were created by the people. Radio ads will “get the message out that Clean Elections is for ‘you’ and to use it to run for office,” according to the report.
Candidates for state offices have a choice—they can take public financing through the clean elections commission or raise money on their own, as politicians did prior to enactment of the law in 1998.
Becker defended the public relations blitz, citing a provision in the law that requires a minimum level of spending on “expenses associated with voter education.”
The law that created the clean elections system sets a limit on how much the agency spends on operations and administration, but allows it to shift money from year to year to account for two-year election cycles. The expenditure cap in 2010 is set at $12.5 million.
The language in the statute requiring that the commission “shall apply ten percent” of the cap to voter education has been interpreted to mean that is the minimum that can be spent, not the maximum, Becker said. The $6.2 million allocated to voter education is 50 percent of the expenditure limit, or five times what the statute calls for.
“The commission has always been of the mindset that we need to educate the public and get the message out about clean elections,” Becker said. “That’s what we continue to do. We educate the public and give them a better understanding of what clean elections is and how they can become involved in it.”
The budget approved by the commission also allocates $25 million to fund campaigns for candidates for the Legislature and statewide offices—$15 million in the primary election and $10 million in the general.
In 2008, during the last two-year election cycle, the commission spent about $2.75 million on advertising and public relations, according to agency documents. Last year it spent about $700,000 for self-promotion.
Commission chairwoman Royann Parker, who supported the budget plan, said spending money to tout the agency is a way to let potential candidates know that they can finance their campaigns using public money. It is also important that the commission is funded primarily from court fines and tax credits and does not get money from the state’s General Fund, she said. In fact, the commission will give $10 million in excess revenue to the state General Fund this fiscal year, according to agency figures.
The public relations budget for the commission has been consistent over the past couple of election cycles, Parker said.
“It’s mostly just so people know that we are a resource for the electorate, as well as people running for office, that there is a way for the average Joe to run for office without having either connections with the Chamber [of Commerce] or lots of money,” Parker said. “So that’s why we need to get the word out about our commission.”
In addition to the publicity campaign, the agency will spend $78,000 for an outside lobbyist, Michael Williams, according to the agency’s budget. Williams’ job is to track legislation and then deliver the commission’s message to lawmakers when bills affecting the agency are considered. However, Becker and agency director Todd Lang already are registered as lobbyists for the commission with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
All that spending on outside promotion irks House Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix. McComish is the lead plaintiff the a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the Goldwater Institute challenging the “matching funds” section of the clean elections law that is meant to equalize funding between those candidates who take public money and those who don’t.
The lawsuit contends the matching funds provision chills the free speech rights of candidates who do not take public money. U.S. District Court judge Roslyn Silver ruled in favor of the Institute and struck down the matching funds provision in January. However, her order has been stayed to allow supporters of the law to appeal. The Institute responded by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to end the delay in enforcing Silver’s ruling.
McComish said he is not as troubled by the money for an outside lobbyist as he is the $2 million the commission will spend on public relations beyond traditional voter education. The ad campaigns make the pitch for candidates to take public money, but do not tell them they can still raise money on their own, McComish said.
“It’s always bothered me that they have those self-promotion ads,” he said. “No other agencies are doing that, promoting themselves. If they are going to be about fairness in elections, if it’s educational, they ought to say there are two ways you can go about this.”
Mark Flatten is an investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute.
The Goldwater Institute is an independent government watchdog supported by people who are committed to expanding free enterprise and liberty.